November 4, 2012 -- It's been a difficult year for McLain Ward. In January, he smashed his left knee on a jump and spent months recovering, wondering whether he would get better in time to make the Olympic team. In May, he mourned the death in a polo accident of Dr. Craig Ferrell, the wonderful U.S. equestrian team physician, who had been a great support during his convalescence. In August, the Olympics didn't go as planned, and the U.S. team came home without a medal. Then, last Sunday, his father, Barney, finally succumbed to the cancer he had been fighting for 12 years.
When I asked him the day after his father's passing whether he would come to the National Horse Show, McLain didn't hesitate. After all, his relationship with Barney centered on show jumping.
"It's what we do," he explained as he stated his intention to ride in the Alltech Arena at the Kentucky Horse Park. He wasn't happy with his performances during the week here, though, and was losing confidence. Was he also losing his touch, he wondered? His loyal and lovely wife, Lauren, told him to stop the nonsense and just get out there and do what he does best.
So he did, turning in two impressive trips over Richard Jeffery's challenging course to take the $250,000 Alltech Grand Prix. Speaking afterwards, he was understandably emotional, struggling to control the tears that sprang into his eyes as he discussed victory and his personal loss.
Certainly, McLain didn't have the easiest time of it in the class with Antares F. He was second to go in the field of 33, and the first clear round, which meant he was first in the seven-horse jump-off. His time of 48.48 seconds in the tie-breaker was lickety-split, but still, with Beezie Madden,? Christine McCrea and Lauren Hough coming behind him, it wasn't foolproof.
Beezie seemed on track to beat him, making a risky turn aboard Simon between a vertical and a triple bar. It was a move that had the crowd of more than 6,000 gasping, and I couldn't believe she tried it. But it was all for naught when she had a rail down. Christine just plain galloped on her Pan American Games double gold medal mount, Romantovich Take One.
"That was as hard as I feel like I could go," she said, but her effort still fell short in? 49.81 seconds, which would make her the runner-up. Lauren and the aptly named Quick Study dropped a rail, but she had won enough over the week to be consoled by the Leading Rider title (which came with a year's lease of an Audi) and tied with Christine for Leading Lady Rider (why do they still give "Lady" awards; c'mon, it's the 21st Century).
Candice King had the only other trip free of jumping faults on Whistler, but she went just over the 55-second time allowed to score a time penalty, which put her third.
McLain was effusive in his praise for the show, and it really wasn't based on the fact that he had just collected a $62,400 winner's check.
"I think the event's phenomenal. This is such an incredible facility....this event is growing in popularity... and I think you're seeing a very high level of competition in the international jumpers. I think it's just going in the right direction and will continue to get better. The infrastructure is phenomenal," he enthused.
While the National has kept the orange and black color scheme it utilized over the decades at Madison Square Garden in New York, everything is different in the purpose-built horse park. The Garden was one inconvenience after another. It's smooth sailing here, from the stabling to the large ring, the parking and facilities. Joan Jacobs spent a week decorating the spacious riders' lounge, where the walls were decked with photos of Show Jumping Hall of Fame inductees. There was also a comfortable grooms' kitchen near the stables.
The major money offered here is a big incentive too. How many junior/amateur-owner jumper classes have a $50,000 purse? That made the Show Jumping Hall of Fame fixture extra special, along with an incredible course. Horse after horse tried and failed, until the intrepid Megan Musz on Vesuvius finally managed to go clean. But right behind her was Abigail McCardle, a cool customer on Cosma Z who bettered Megan's mark to take the class.
Abigail, who trains with Katie Prudent--like Reed Kessler, of whom you may have heard--had some trepidation about Cosma at first. When she found the Hanoverian nine months ago, she noted the chestnut was careful, but quirky. She did, however, excel in Kentucky during the spring, at Devon and Spruce Meadows. So what's the quirk?
"She's a hot mare, she's wild. She comes out of her stall, she's spooky, she's spinning," said 18-year-old Abigail. "But you overlook everything when you go in the ring and she's true blue for me. I've been able to form an amazing relationship with her."
When I asked what she was going to do with her $15,000 first prize, her father, David, answered for her: "Feed the horse."
There aren't too many who mourn the loss of the Garden anymore, but for those who do, think of this: If the show were still in New York, it wouldn't have been held this year. Does Hurricane Sandy ring a bell? And remember, they canceled the New York City marathon.
Show President and CEO Mason Phelps told me he hadn't had one complaint from the riders (that has to be a first!) and as I went around and talked with people, everyone was as happy about the show as McLain -- even if they hadn't won a five-figure prize.
The next big job is getting a crowd in on the nights that don't feature a grand prix. They took a step in the right direction with the reinstatement of the puissance. I remember in the old days at Madison Square Garden, Thursday night was puissance night and the place was filled to the rafters for that high-jumping contest. The Friday night puissance here was won at 7 feet by Tim Gredley of Great Britain on Unex Valente, and there were more people there for that than there had been on the previous evenings. Word will get out, I'm sure, and Mason said he's working on bringing more people in the door.
Retirements often are a highlight at the National, because you have to be a really famous horse to take your leave there. This year the farewell was for Up Chiqui, Kent Farrington's exciting Dutchbred grand prix mount whose speed was thrilling. He'll be living an idyllic life at Alex Boone's farm in the bluegrass; Alex made it sound so good when we talked that I asked if I could retire there. He just chuckled. I don't expect him to be taking Up Chiqui for many leisurely trail rides. He said you could hack him for a week and he'd be fine, but on the next day, you might be sitting on the ground and wondering what happened.
The National's gem has always been the ASPCA Maclay, the last of the fall hunt seat equitation finals. It's been won by everyone from George Morris (60 years ago!) who was judging it this year with California jumper rider Hap Hansen; Billy Steinkraus and Leslie Burr (Howard) to Conrad Homfeld and Peter Wylde. Interestingly, I was at the Meadowlands in 1992 (the National had a brief detour there from 1989-1995) when Nicki Shahinian won. It was like deja vu to see Sophie, her daughter with Olympic gold medalist Will Simpson, competing this year. She looks exactly like her mother. Sophie? went last in the field of 152, which is tough, but made it to the flat phase and the second round.
The judges called 23 back for a flat test that included counter-canter, sitting trot and hand gallop, and let all of them return for the second round. The course for that was the route for the first round, but run backwards.
The decor was minimalist along the layout, designed by Hap and George, which included fences devoid of decoration, among them a narrow fern-topped box. A triple combination in the first round had rails going vertically instead of horizontally for the first two obstacles; think of the fencing along a racetrack. Many horses took umbrage there and stopped. In fact, I thought there were a lot more refusals than I'd seen in years. On the other hand, those at the top were impressive.
Jacob Pope, whose star rose last month when he won the Platinum Performance/U.S. Equestrian Federation Show Jumping Talent Search Finals East, was called back sixth. I had my eye on him and figured he'd move up. Lillie Keenan was called back first, followed by Lauren Tyree, Washington International finals winner Elizabeth Benson; Lauren's sister, Catherine, and Lydia Ulrich. At testing time, when the top four? switched horses to jump the same course again, Catherine was fourth, Jacob third, Elizabeth second and Lillie still held first.
Catherine had a great trip; ditto Jacob. Elizabeth overshot the skinny wingless fern-topped box on Lillie's Clearway. While the horse leaped, he was jumping air and she was ruled off-course to finish fourth. Lillie had a rail on Benson's mount after getting close to a fence, dropping her to second. Jacob ruled the day, ending his equitation career in high style aboard Catherine's Patrick.
I asked Hap how the placings worked and he explained that while Catherine was second in the final four round, the judges took into account the entire day's performance in assigning the ribbons, which was how she came third.
Jacob is a kid who was showing locally and regionally in Maryland and vicinity until he won the U.S. Hunter Jumper Association's Emerging Athletes Program, attended a George Morris clinic, was discovered by Andre Dignelli associate Patricia Griffith and went on to fame under the wing of Andre (who also trains Lillie). His story should give hope to other talented young riders who have talent but lack big bucks.
"I'm still in shock I won it," said Jacob, 18, who better get used to the whole national championship thing. He's turning to jumpers now and if I'm any kind of prognosticator, I think it's safe to say he'll be on a U.S. team in the forseeable future. It's been said he has it all, referring to his horsemanship ability, but it actually extends to his wonderful personality and manners. Here's the evidence: he won the sportsmanship award for good measure.
Speaking of teams, George--who is ending his tenure as U.S. show jumping coach--cited the quality of the top end of the Maclay group, and said we should be able to field three Olympic teams. But he said it is up to the professionals (like Andre) to develop our future international riders. He also mentioned that the top three were very stylish and the young women? in the trio "ooze elegance." In my book, Jacob is quite elegant, too.
The National is always fun for reminiscing with the folks who, like me, have been a part of the show for decades. Ringmaster John Franzreb is a constant presence with his horn, and I wondered how he got started in his job.
For more in the way of photos, go to www.facebook.com/equisearch. We have a bunch of National pix posted,and I'll be putting up others this evening for a more complete picture of the show.
My final trip to a competition this year is this week, when I head to Toronto's Royal Winter Fair, a one-of-a-kind show. I'll tell you all about it when I send my postcard next Sunday.